A Delightful History–“Willie’s Time” by Charles Einstein
In Willie’s Time, Charles Einstein weaves a fine tale from the strands of the stellar career of the ‘Say Hey Kid’ and the fine mesh of society’s changes over a period of twenty-two years. Ingeniously divided into sections representing the five presidencies that came and went during Mays’s career, we see the ballplayer grow from a frightened rookie praying that he wouldn’t have to hit while on deck at the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951 (He didn’t; Bobby Thomson took care of that), to a confident star hoping to hit on October 3, 1962 (he did hit, and smashed a game-tying single in another playoff game against the Dodgers), to a legend on the verge of retirement hoping for a shot at tying the seventh game of the World Series (Manager Yogi Berra did not bat Mays for third baseman Wayne Garrett, who popped out to end the game and the Series).
Einstein is known to baseball bibliophiles as the editor of the topnotch Fireside Books of Baseball series, to fans of comedy as the half-brother of Albert Brooks, and possibly as the son of Harry Einstein, aka Parkyakarkus, a well known vaudevillian. He began covering the Giants in the late 1950s, and grew close to Mays, ghosting the player’s first biography and so being in a unique position to write of Mays’ illustrious career. Born To Play Ball appeared after the Giants’ 1954 championship season. Not many big leaguers publish autobiographies, ghosted or otherwise, after their second full season, do they?
There are still many people in Greater New York who were traumatized by the departure of the Giants and Dodgers after the 1957 season. While the Dodgers enjoyed significant success after a rough first season, even while playing their first four seasons in the cavernous LA Coliseum (It was said that the misshapen venue had room for 92,000 spectators and two outfielders), the Giants had a much more difficult time gaining acceptance in the West after the initial novelty had worn off. It was theorized that the team was seen as transplanted, arrogant New Yorkers instead of native San Franciscans. By their pennant-winning season of 1962, all the New York transplants were gone except for manager Alvin Dark, coach John Antonelli—and Willie Mays. That fact, plus 103 wins, and San Francisco’s heart belonged to the San Francisco Giants. At least until the Kansas City Athletics moved to Oakland in 1968.
While many believe that the Bay Area cannot support two teams, it seems unlikely from today’s perspective that either club will move away anytime soon. Of course the period from 1951-1973 was one of tremendous upheaval in American society, and in perhaps no area were the changes more acute and sometimes violent than civil rights. A century after the Emancipation Proclamation, many people of color did not have the rights ostensibly granted to all by the Constitution, being prevented from voting, serving on juries, or living where they pleased. Even during World War Two, white soldiers had separate, superior facilities, Harry Truman not desegregating the armed forces until 1948. But Willie Mays, like Roy Campanella before him, was not outspoken on matters of race, affecting relative indifference to everything but playing ball.
In some ways this was prudent, since to play consistently well at such a high level requires the utmost in concentration and by temperament Mays was disinclined to outspokenness on the issues of the day. But issues of race and tolerance exploded in the summer of 1964 when the writer Stan Isaacs published a story in Newsday that quoted San Francisco manager Dark specifically charging African American and Hispanic players on his squad as lacking in intelligence, alertness, and team spirit. When the interview was published the Giants were in Pittsburgh, where Mays hurriedly called a meeting of the non-white players to sort out the situation and quell an impending revolt. Understandably these players were upset, categorically refusing to play another game for the Southern born and bred Baptist Dark.
But at this critical juncture Mays informed the coterie that, no matter what, Dark would not be back in 1965, and further, if they quit on him and/or forced his ouster, Dark would be seen in some circles as a martyr, which would do no good to the cause of integration and tolerance. Over a decade of leadership on and off the field had given Mays an in with owner Horace Stoneham and thus the center fielder was privy to the fact that the livid Stoneham had wanted to fire Dark immediately. The Giants brain trust, VP Charles Feeney, coach (and Dark’s successor as manager) Herman Franks, and Mays himself, talked the owner out of it both because the Giants were battling for the pennant and because no one wanted to situation to escalate to the point of making Dark a hero to racists.
Further, whatever his other perceived faults, all involved knew that Dark was color blind when it came to putting his best lineup on the field every day. Winning ball games meant money, and Alvin Dark liked the folding green as much as anyone. And Mays was aware enough to realize what Dark’s departure as manager in mid season would mean—for the rest of the season if not the rest of their careers, every player involved would be deluged with question after question about why they quit on their manager. So at the end of the season, after a closer-than-it-sounds fourth place, 90-win season, out went Dark, in came Franks, and on went Mays. As he transitioned from player to elder statesman to legend, he maintained a high level of play and a consistency other players could only observe and envy.
Production slipped in his last seasons to the point where any fan would be hard pressed to read any story about Mays that didn’t mention the fact that he may have stayed too long at the party. Mercifully Einstein does not dwell on this, looking to the last embattled days of Richard Nixon as a parallel along with the last tortured gasps of the Vietnam War. By 1972, Horace Stoneham, pressed for operating capital and facing declining attendance in the face of competition from the champion A’s, was looking to get out from under Mays’s six figure contract. Adding a small measure of sentimentality and a large dose of practicality, New York Mets owner Joan Payson shelled out fifty large and young hurler Charlie Williams for the Kid’s contract, and Willie was back home after over twenty years.
In his first game for the Mets, Mays blasted a fifth-inning home run that proved to be the game winner, and the love affair between the Say Hey Kid and the Big Apple resumed. Playing less but still a useful outfielder and pinch hitter, Mays contributed on and off the field despite rumored friction with manager Yogi Berra as the Miracle Mets 2.0 won their division, dispatched a heavily favored Big Red Machine in the NL playoffs, and took an even more heavily favored Oakland A’s club, then in the middle of their three year run as World Champions, to the seventh game of a controversial, hard-fought Series. At the conclusion of the season, Mays called it a career, bringing to a close an epic chapter of baseball history, simply the best player of the postwar generation.
A wonderfully entertaining read with something for most readers, baseball fans, political observers, historians, sociologists, but most of all the story of one of the finest players ever to stare down a pitcher, chase a fly ball, or tear around the bases with wild abandon.
Willie’s Time: a Memoir by Charles Einstein. J. B. Lippincott 1979